Turkey and Russia tussle in Syria’s Idlib

The past few weeks have seen the worst fighting this year in Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold. Russia and the Syrian government have gone aggressively after the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group that controls most of the province, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and in doing so have endangered the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  

“Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday evening. “The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”

More than 310 civilians and 630 fighters have been killed since April 30, including more than 130 children, according to the United Nations and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In September, Ankara and Moscow agreed to establish de-escalation zones in Idlib, with Turkey agreeing to shoulder the responsibility of keeping rebel groups there under control. Russia and President Bashar Assad’s government have criticised Turkey for failing to fulfil its part of the deal, with HTS since gaining control of much of the province.

Now the Russian and Syrian offensive threatens to unleash a new wave of Syrian refugees, even as Turkey is already hosting some 3.6 million.

More than 250,000 of Idlib’s 3 million residents have been displaced since early May, pushing Turkey to insist on implementing a ceasefire. Ankara had for weeks directed its anger solely against Damascus in a clear bid to avoid alienating Moscow. But on Sunday, Bloomberg reported that Turkey might have begun pressing Russia to restrain Damascus’ efforts to regain control of Idlib.

The developments offer a reminder of the diverging interests of Turkey, Russia, and the main Assad-backer, Iran, and raise questions about how they might be overcome.

Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış pointed out that Russia and Iran supported Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, while Ankara, much like Washington, would prefer to see a significant armed opposition in Idlib to pressure the Syrian government.

This position contradicts Turkey’s stand in regards to Kurdish-led militia in northern Syria.

“It will not be a consistent policy if Turkey opposes Kurds’ establishing their cantons, or autonomous regions in the north of Syria, while implementing in Idlib a policy that weakens the Syrian government’s control over the province,” Yakış told Ahval, adding that he hoped to see improved Turkish-Russian cooperation in Idlib.

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Turkish-Russian affairs and Russia's foreign policy, said the ceasefire deal Turkey and Russia reached last September was dead on arrival.

“It was completely clear that the deal wouldn’t work from the beginning,” he said, arguing that Moscow knew that during the time Turkey was meant to eliminate HTS it would also be feuding with Washington about its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

“Now, the date of S-400s first supply nears and the U.S. presence in Syria is still there as it was nine months ago,” he said. “In addition to that, HTS now almost totally dominates the Idlib province compared to partial control when the agreement was reached.”

Has believes that with its recent bombardments, Moscow is signalling its willingness to allow the Syrian government to gain full control of Idlib, but slowly, in a piecemeal fashion. This, however, is subject to change.

“If Ankara changes its mind on purchasing S-400s, it is highly likely that the first Russian response to such a decision will be speeding up the Idlib operation.”

The result would be a massive flow of refugees into Turkey. Has doubted that Russia would offer Turkey any compromise over Idlib in the near future.

“Turkey may possibly have to offer an alternative plan over Idlib to avoid a new refugee flow and prevent a humanitarian crisis,” said Has. “Ankara may try to reach a new compromise to create a kind of a buffer zone in northern Idlib for civilians.”

Nader Uskowi, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Iran was ready to support the Syrian government’s move to regain control over the entire country.

“Taking Idlib is a top priority,” he said. “Iran is positioning Quds Force ground forces under its command for a decisive battle over Idlib.”

The Quds Force is the extraterritorial arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has proven instrumental to helping the Assad government survive the Syrian conflict.

Yet Iran and Syria would still need strong Russian support, and possibly Turkish cooperation, to take Idlib, according to Uskowi.

“To maintain Russian support and placate Ankara, Iran might be willing to accept a wide Turkish security zone along the northern borders in lieu of Ankara’s cooperation in withdrawing forces under its command from the area,” he said.

Meanwhile, Iran is facing economic troubles as a result of U.S. sanctions, while the Quds Force has been undermined by the United States declaring the IRGC a terrorist outfit.

“Turkey and Russia are in a better position now to extract concessions from Iran - that was not possible just a few months ago,” Uskowi said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.